Water Loves

This is the fifth installment of a series about water. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

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Photograph by Rylan Brown

A few weeks ago I returned again to my home of summer healing: the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, on a peninsula within the peninsula that is my dear state of Michigan. I have gone there with my father almost every year since I can remember, just as he did with his parents. My mother used to come. Sometimes my siblings come. But I treat it like a religion, a holy pilgrimage to which I am bound.

Whenever I go back to those dunes, and rediscover the muscles in my legs that are needed to walk them, and jump into that sweet water of Lake Michigan, my body remembers what it was made for. The water holds me like a mother. The waves rock me like a lullaby. It is cold but then it starts to feel warm, just like I imagine it must be when you first come out into the world screaming and alone, and then your body starts to acclimate to the good air you breathe, to the other flesh that still sticks to yours, to the milk that feeds you and the water that cleans you.

When we were in the womb, the water of our mother’s body surrounded us and connected us to the source of life we needed to grow. When we are in the world, we dive into lakes and rivers and remember that the fresh water of the earth surrounds us and connects us to all life, to all flourishing and growth.

This water of our Mother Earth’s body is as old as time—the same water we swim in has passed through the bodies of Jesus, of Muhammad, of Mahlia Jackson and of the one you loved who has gone on and left you now. And it has all watered the ground that brings forth plants to eat, that nourishes animals and insects and microorganisms that keep the planet breathing and babies being born.

Get in it. Feel it all around you and know that the warm sweetness of life surrounds you. As my friend Brian Lillie wrote in a song once, “This ocean we swim is no place to die of thirst—love is all there is.”

Or if you can’t get in it, do as I did this past weekend at Earthwork Harvest Gathering, and get messy with it. I had gone back for the first time in 10 years to this festival that also reminds me of my connectedness to all life—a harmonic connectedness to a great web of musical life—and I participated in a water blessing ceremony for the first time as a pastor, alongside representatives of Jewish, Islamic, Native American and Druid traditions. When my turn came, I invited everyone to take out whatever water-bearing recipient they might have, open it up, and pour that water all over themselves. I gleefully demonstrated. In this way we remember that the essence of our beings can flow as unstoppably as water to fulfill the sacred purpose we each were given.

But we cannot just keep blithely receiving the water of life; we also have to take care of it. Water only gives eternally if we give back the same love it has shown us. The water that has recycled itself into the clouds for millions of years can still be poisoned with contamination beyond repair for countless generations. That is what thousands of Native Americans from tribes across the country have insisted in recent weeks as they have gathered in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipline: if we allow our greed for cheap oil to poison the water—as such pipelines almost inevitably do—we poison our own lives, and desecrate the sacred.

One of the other participants in the water blessings ceremony, my friend Aaron Allen, explained how the word for water in Hebrew is the word for mother if you invert it, and if you separate it in two it means “what if.” He concluded: “What if we treated water with the same respect, love and care that we would treat our own mother? And what if we continue not to do that?”

One of my dear ones that has gone on and left me is my friend Phil Wintermute. He wrote simple songs from the heart, and in one of them he dreamed he was made out of water—just a big bag of water walking around. “Water is the love of the earth,” he sings. So we are also big bags of love walking around, and we drink from love, and we swim in the love that gives us life, and it flows around us everywhere.

Never, for a moment, take all that water for granted. It is a gift born of love.

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Praying for Water

This is the fourth installment of a series about water, a poem-prayer written near the beginning of 2016 that touches on the themes of ecological disaster and suffering that were discussed in the second installment, but also reaches toward hope, transformation and the nearness of the Holy Spirit explored in the third installmentClick here for the introductory entry. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

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I trust that I, even I,
can be transformed.
I trust you to take me and shake me,
And put me back where I belong;
To make me into your song.

Do you cry for me?
Do you weep raggedly?
Do your hold your aching chest

for the children poisoned
by the trickle-down water of greed in Flint?
Do you gasp and grab fistfuls of your shirt
for the fishing villages and the fish
along the bone-dry basin of Lake Poopó?
Do you long with us to pour out rain
and the fragrant oil of peace on
the parched and cracked communities of Colombia?

I can only keep moving
in this dense haze of my little pain,
of the world’s dry, tortured rage,
If I know you are crying with me.
Dying with us.
If I know I have a great high priest
who can sympathize with my weakness.

My limbs are weak, head sore from worry.
My movements are constrained,
wing tips cut now by the god of worldly comfort,
by my own numb insecurity.

But you, you vibrate somewhere deep
in my muscles, in my blood.
You flow and surge, keeping my spirit awake
And restless.

Water / Falls

This is the third installment of a series about water. Click here for the introductory entry. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

I took a road trip from Michigan to Georgia with my mother in 2014, and along our journey through the Appalachian mountains we had a series of encounters with waterfalls that left me forever changed. I believe I never understood or even fully believed in the Holy Spirit until I had drawn near to these waterfalls. During the following semester at seminary—which was my last—I replaced going to church on Sunday with hiking to different waterfalls within driving distance of Atlanta. The following six-part poem reflects one of these Sunday “worship services” in the woods of Northern Georgia, exploring what we can learn from water—about our essential nature, about our bodies and their goodness as well as their limitations, about God, and about love.

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I.

Just by flowing down, water carves away
at the stagnate structures
of million-year-old stone
and makes new shapes:
smooth curves, round cubbyholes, deep pools.

It makes a way out of no way.

But first it makes its peace with structure,
no matter how constraining it is.
And it takes a very, very long time.

Which is stronger: water or stone?

II.

Sometimes humans make
beautiful things
without harming anyone:
stones in the middle of water
piled up very carefully,
as if they were sitting and thinking,
balanced so precariously
but never falling over.

They startle the landscape,
and take away nothing at all
from the harmonious order of things.

III.

The ferns! The ferns
are so soft that I want
to lie down and make my bed of them
even if I get wet—
because everything is always wet—
alongside my love forever,
sighing in each other’s arms.

Ours is a forbidden love,
that flows in torrents against
what I think
are good sound structures
for my life.
All true love is forbidden.

IV.

On top of a dizzying cliff,
like God’s rough finger
jutting out of the earth
with a flat callous at the tip,
I imagine a monk
should meditate here.
The water rushes down around us
but we cannot see it;
we can only imagine it tickling
the crevice of God’s hand.

I say “we” because
there are two insects that look like giant bees
lying on their sides at the base of a spindly tree,
heads locked in a frenetic, passionate embrace.
Their countless little limbs
swinging spinning interlocking
faster than my own ten fingers can move,
as if they wanted to devour each other’s
little black and yellow faces.
And as I watch them I start to think
that their heads really are beautiful,
desirable, at least if I were one of them.

And I want to cling to my love like that,
to grab at his face, his skin, his limbs
until he leaves what I’m hungry for stuck to my body;
or whatever it is that giant bees do
when they love each other.

V.

I have fear in my body
when I try to head back down
the steep rocks and roots and slippery mud.
I am afraid of falling.

I think about how I move
and how I hold myself still.

I am proud that I have not fallen,
but the sad secret is this:
I do not move with grace.
I don’t let myself move too much at all.
A jerk in my neck, a jerk in my hips,
a stiffness I never really let go of,
and I make my way, all right, as I fight
against form and flow.

How would water do this?

And finally, when I am almost to the flat land,
I set my foot where I know I shouldn’t—
my one feeble dare—
and I slide into mud, scrapes and bruises,
embarrassed and defeated.

VI.

I decide not to wash
the swaths of mud off my legs,
not even in the soft ferns.
Let them think what they will
when they see me hiking back.

The secret that only God knows is this:

I am made wholly of water.

The End Cometh by Water (circa 2011)

This is the second installment of a series about water. Click here for the introductory entry. This week’s entry is adapted from a journal entry written on May 27, 2011, but its themes continue to ring hauntingly true. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

Everything is meaningless. The rain falls on both the wicked and the just.

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Some people say the end is coming. Some people say Christ is coming. The Rapture didn’t happen on Saturday, as some radio personality had predicted. Of course, the Bible says Christ will come like a thief in the night. What’s stopping him?

It won’t stop raining in Vermont. As a child, I dreamt of living a smart, romantic adult life in Montpelier. Now it is under water. A piece of road in my hometown of Ann Arbor has buckled from a mudslide. Devastating tornadoes have torn through the South and the Midwest in the past month, leveling whole towns and killing thousands. Droughts in the Southwest make growing crops impossible, while diluvial rains in the Midwest make planting impossible.

Now it’s not just other places, other people. Darker skin, smaller houses. It is not just earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, floods in Pakistan, landslides in Bolivia. Now it is Japan in all its high-tech efficiency. Now it is the United States, the land of plenty and pleasure. The land of “silhouettes turning sexy in short-loving tights, attention-seeking details peeking out at every turn, and big city allure on show as Express rocks the sidewalk.” I read that in the news today. Americans are still going to fashion shows and cramming too many metaphors into their descriptions of them, just as they cram too much sugar and salt and processed foods in their bellies, but this won’t help when the floodwaters rise even to our heights.

It’s because the polar ice caps are melting. It’s because Mt. Illimani’s perfect snowy peaks are cracking as it cries over the life that will be lost. It’s because factories and cars are belching. It’s because we need more plastic. We need more electronic gadgets. And everything takes coal. And everything takes wholeness from the air, from the hemisphere. And hot air traps moistures more easily than cold air. And moisture traps people in mile-wide tornadoes, in screaming hurricanes and tropical storms, in dark churning lakes, in sliding mud.

Before Claude Lévi-Strauss died at the age of 100, after a lifetime of studying the delightful particularities of human culture, he proclaimed that he was now living in a world he no longer liked.

I, too, felt that I am living in a world that I no longer like when I woke up this morning to another day of unseasonably cold, unabating May rain, remembering the farmers who cannot sow their corn in soggy fields, and opened up the mindlessly addictive mechanism of Facebook to discover that a friend in Montpelier had to get up at 4:30 this morning and move her car to a parking structure to escape the flooding. The tenuous thread of hope fluttered away from me. The rainbow has not appeared in the sky and no one remembers God’s promise to never again destroy the world by water; I live in a world where we have taken that gruesome task into our own hands.

I feel powerless to construct a better world for us. I could live in a commune in the woods, but that would do nothing to insulate me from the “shifting” weather patterns that can decimate crops, houses, entire towns, and intangible dreams.

Aside from that, you really need social media to stay connected these days.

But do you need to stay connected at all? Michael Perlman, the environmental activist and writer, didn’t think so. I woke up with him on my mind today for the first time in years. I knew of him because he was assigned as my mother’s advisor one semester at Vermont College. She didn’t hear from from him for weeks, and then she found out he had killed himself. He left a note for his parents explaining that if he couldn’t reverse the damage humans were doing to the environment, he wished no longer to be contributing to its destruction by using factories, cars, plastic and electronic gadgets. Michael, too, lived in a world he no longer liked. So he decided to leave it.

Is there a way to live here without hurting more than we heal? Is there a way to live without leaving greasy, indelible tracks of death behind us? Is there a way to go without plastic and gadgets, to turn away from sexy silhouettes and short-loving tights?

Not everyone lives in such luxury. Not everyone can wake up on a cold and rainy May day and take a hot shower, leaving the water running even while soaping up, and turn the central heating on in the house. Most people still live in the potential virtuousness of poverty. Which is not to say that the suffering of poverty is a virtue, but that sometimes the humble ways of life that “developed” nations consider poverty are really just lives that have as much as they need and give back as much as they take.

But I realized, as I lay in bed and thought of Michael Perlman, Claude Lévi-Strauss and my Bolivian friends who live in poverty, that most anyone takes advantage of luxury if given the chance. There is nothing especially unvirtuous about North Americans. Maybe everyone has a latent American heart—privileged, self-satisfied, comfortable and craving more. I suppose you could call this the sinful nature. Bring iPhones and central heating systems to poor Bolivians, and most will accept them with open arms.

I could have turned off the water as I soaped up this morning. But I remembered the thing Amy told me about using steam to open your pores before cleansing your face to clear up acne. And I, as much as anyone, want a sexy silhouette when I walk down the sidewalk.

Oh, the Water (Part 1)

This blog entry marks the first in a series on water that I will publish once a week at least until the end of September. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

I have been silent for awhile now, but after settling into a new life in my old country, I am ready to try again to make sense of this sensual world. I am ready to begin speaking from the new place I have observed quietly for the past two months. I live in a beautiful old suburb east of Detroit, along the shores of a brilliant blue lake. When you hit upon it where the streets end, it could be one of the Great Lakes, if you didn’t know any better. The well-kept, wealthy homes sit on trim squares of green that find life in the eternal sprinkler systems springing up from every corner of the sidewalks. Once, I saw my neighbor shamelessly spray her hose across the fence to water my rose bushes. Even during the drought of June and July, water is abundant here.

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Meanwhile, the Louisiana floods have displaced something like 11,000 people from their homes, and the NPR commentators are marveling at the “record-braking” and “unprecedented” levels of rain—but are they really marveling? Someone points out that records are broken every month now; the unremarkableness of disaster is the reality of life in a world that will soon be 2°C hotter than it ever was before.

So I have been thinking a lot about water.

Where is water from?

You rinse dried clay off your skin as waves knock you down and make you laugh and laugh in Lake Michigan. You visit New Orleans as a teenager and stay in a shotgun house with your friends who play music on the streets, then two years later you hear about the hurricane trying to wash it all into the sea. You see a tide rise for the first time along the Saint Lawrence in Canada: deep, dangerous ocean water covering where you just had walked. 

What is water for?

You linger in the hot bath till it turns cold, gliding little boats or ducks or—improbably enough—trucks across the surface. You fall in the pool and see nothing but turqoise rushing past and wonder if you’ll die until your mom grabs your arm and yanks you out. You water the garden only in the early morning and late evening, she explains, because otherwise the sun burns the leaves of the plants.

What is water?

You walk out on the lake once it’s frozen over, stomping on the ice with your boot and imagining if it were to break and what it would be like to feel the cold water of death beneath. You climb over an obstacle course of beaver’s dens and brambles to find a cool dark cove charged with the energy of a waterfall, and it gives you faith in the Holy Spirit dwelling in your own body, surging like the blood of your veins. You run outside in the summer downpour just to feel the thrill of something unstoppable coming down from the heavens and touching your skin.

Water is life and death and rage and love, all mixed up in one.

Next week, naturally, we’ll discuss the apocalypse.

 

 

A Photo Journal of Farewells

I have often written in this blog about where I live in Bogotá, a small lower middle class neighborhood called San Francisco. It sits on a steep hill where the Muisca people used to worship the sun, which is “sua” in their language. Thence the greater urban district of Suba takes its name, which incidentally also means “go up” in Spanish. This is an appropriate description of my daily experience climbing to the very highest point in the neighborhood to reach my house.

I have tried to get to know this little corner of the world, where a tall wall separates the poor working class from the luxurious condominium complexes of wealthy elites who opted for a semi-rural enclave with a sweeping view of the city. Exclusive private schools, a horse farm and a Catholic retreat center run are dispersed along a dirt road just beyond the fringe of the barrio. The neighbors fight with each other but tenderly take care of stray dogs. The baker and the stationary store owner have a certain sweetness to them. Rock musicians, folkloric musicians and indigenous activists leave their marks on the aural landscape or the wall murals.

And now I am leaving it behind. I’ve returned to live in the US for a time, full of hope and nostalgia, wishing as always that I could have done more in the place that I called home for a time, and grateful, for it gave me much more than I returned.

On the occasion of my departure from this neighborhood named after my favorite saint, and taking advantage of the fact that I finally had a camera, I will recreate it here in the amateur photos I took in the days before leaving.

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My neighborhood, from across the main drag.

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That yellow one, that’s where we’re going.

The most important thing to know about my neighborhood is that a sheep lives behind my house, but only about 2-3 days out of the month. Apparently it’s a join custody situation. For more about this particular sheep, see the entry “Sounds of My Neighborhood.”

My best friends in the neighborhood, as well as my worst enemies, were of the canine variety. Porca lived outside our door, because no one seemed to want her in their house. Our neighbor took care of her, and we gave her food sometimes—as well as christening her “Porky,” then “Porca” when we realized she was a girl, and finally “Porquis” as a term of endearment. I don’t think she could see much because she had grunge hair as well as a growth over one eye.

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Porca

Another one was named Luna. We couldn’t figure out what house Luna came from, but she was always around, and she protected me from the mean little yippy dogs who appeared to be Porca’s evil brothers. In turn, she expected to be able to come into our apartment and get food out of us. Sometimes she achieved this goal.

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Luna

These dogs hung out on the street down the hill from our house, and they were the most beautiful creatures and gentle souls.

Not pictured: the pit bull who lived along the shortest route to our house and would bite people, such as my husband, stealth-style as they passed by. Nor her companion, a behemouth black dog who laid around all day sleeping until he died.

In Casablanca, which is a continuation of my neighborhood in tone and location, there is a man who sits on this chair every day and makes jokes with people or provides incomprehensible reflections or delights in birds (see: Collaborators and Friends in the Effervescent Moment).

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The place where the man who delights in birds sits.

Across from his spot, there are other kinds of birds on the walls, which is perhaps not a coincidence.

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A child also delights in a bird on the wall of what is sometimes a small farmer’s market.

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Potted plants in plastic bottles and “Casablanca Wants Green”

I wish I had found ways to learn more about it, but from what I could gather, these hilltop neighborhoods indeed had a special energy around ecology and indigenous culture. On the edge of the largest park they painted a mural promoting indigenous culture, and it faces a community garden.

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The park of Casablanca.

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“Recover our culture: Long live Sukuri” (an Andean dance)

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Andean figures playing music, surrounded by corn, the life-source.

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The community garden

But gentrification threatens at every turn. Here is the sign for a new condominium complex they’re building that claims to allow you to “discover your own nature” (see: “How Not to Discover Your Own Nature“).

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On this bridge that leads down to Suba, between the reports of muggings, the pirate ship, the castle and the dizzying drop, it’s no wonder they felt the need to call it the “Bridge of the Virgin.” I certainly feel I could use a little divine favor when I cross this bridge.

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What I said before about my neighborhood, I take it back. The most important thing to know about my neighborhood is the climb.

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It just keeps going up.

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And up.

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Yes, I have climbed those stairs many times. No, I don’t recommend doing it even once. The following two photos show the alternate route—the one with the mean dog.

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Sometimes, the streets go up so high that they turn into pianos.

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But it’s all worth it when you come home to beauty, and to someone you love.

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The view outside our front door.

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From left to right: Parqués board, Luna, Ricardo, Sari.

 

 

A tribute to a sensical woman

On the occasion of her birthday last year, I wrote  a poem for my mother, Lucia, and sent it to her in a card with an amateur portrait I attempted to draw of her with markers. Fortunately, this bit of ephimera made it all the way across the Carribbean Sea to her doorstep. Now, I would like to share the poem here, because this woman has, like no other, taught me what it means to be fully attentive to sensing the world around me.

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My Mother

My mother belongs to the birds.
She belongs to the one absurd red flower
That appeared out of nowhere along the path.
She sees them; she loves them.
She expects nothing else.

My mother is a house by the sea.
She breathes. She is full of empty space.
She dwells in a very particular place,
With pancakes and maple syrup,
Cut onions frying in tamari,
Laughter and speech that pours forth
Knowledge from a secret symmetry
In the microcosms of our bodies.

My mother sometimes works at a desk
With machines and people.
Sometimes, she works over a table
With the tender bodies of people.
She is not always compassionate,
But neither are you.
She remembers the one with the aching heart.
Her best work she does over a bed of moss
Or a cool patch of sand dune.

My mother is a day of rest.
A new Sabbath instated
On the day she was born
After a long, hard creation.

Collaborators and Friends in the Effervescent Moment

I’ve been doing this exercise lately of trying to figure out what’s most important to me. Core values, life purposes, that sort of thing. Usually I discern such things in a rather ad-hoc way—but sensically, of course. I wait for something to come to me in a dream or outdoors or in a book, and to captivate my senses in an undeniable way.

So far, the only thing I’ve gotten really clear about is that birds are important to me. I’m not sure if you can consider “birds” a core value, but you can, doubtlessly, delight in them.

My first encounter with birds during this discernment process took place a few weeks ago when I was walking along the teeming “Septimazo,” a main avenue in downtown Bogotá that is permanently closed to traffic for about twenty  blocks. People who look like they sleep outside make meticulous, larger-than-life chalk portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on the street, and folkloric dance groups and rock bands perform in close aural quarters every half-block.

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When I got the Gold Museum, I saw a man with his entire body spray-painted silver who was impersonating the singer Carlos Vives, down to the most minute gesture of the Colombian icon. He happened to be lip-syncing “Volví a Nacer,”the song my husband and I chose for our first dance at our wedding. So I stopped and listened, smiling and nodding my head. After a few minutes, two sparrows fluttered down to the foot of the silver box the silver man stood on, and without missing a beat, he stooped down and extended his hands toward the birds like a gesture of welcome for honored guests, then smiled at me as if he knew that I, among the several people standing there, would understand. Maybe I did. I was impressed that he recognized the birds as his co-collaborators in street art—recognized that the conspiration of the effervescent moment and all the living beings around him were as much a part of making art as his individual efforts.

But now that I think about the impersonator and the birds and the wedding song, I remember that I also wrote a song about marriage a long time ago, at a time when I only dreamed about being tender and open enough to enter into such a challenging commitment. I am struck by the fact that in it I sing, “Some people make birds out of their wedding dress.” Maybe now it is my time to do just that. To make this commitment, and all of my commitments to a life of deep purpose and values, into birds dancing freely.

A second encounter happened one day when I went for a morning run and passed by this man who seems to live in a dilapidated armchair nestled into an uncultivated strip of earth along the sidewalk. Though he sporadically speaks streams of words I can’t understand and has the kind of dreadlocks that happen by letting hair do its natural thing without intervention, his strangeness does not seem to keep him lonely. He has friends: people who give him food, who shout jokes at him from their work trucks, and two stubby-legged dogs who circle around him like they know where their home is.

But this time I realized this neighborhood fixture has a circle of friends even broader than I had thought: as I passed, I saw him looking up at the trees that overhang the towering wall around the rich people’s condominium complex, and reach his hand up as if grasping at something. I realized that he was smiling at the birds hopping about in the branches up there. These members of the community did not go unacknowledged by him. And, indeed, he delighted in them.

Sometimes, finding value or purpose is not so much about looking for deeper meaning in things, but just noticing them at all. And noticing birds, I have realized, is deeply important to me.

A Voice Crying Out in the Bus System

“Good afternoon, I hope you all are well today. My goal is not to discomfort or inconvenience anyone; I just want to share my art…”

“…I am a mother of three children, and I find myself in a state of pregnancy due to a rape. Unfortunately, I am also a carrier of HIV…

“…here in the city with absolutely nothing and no one, and we have been sleeping in a room that we rent daily for twenty thousand pesos. I am selling these candies to so that we can have a roof over our heads tonight…”

“…and as you can see my leg was broken…hospital bills…fifteen months since the accident without being able to work…”

“…This is my work. This is how I make a living. Just like any of you, I do whatever it takes to provide for my two beautiful…”

“…each candy filled with a rich liquid center in four delicious flavors: strawberry, blackberry, passion fruit and pineapple, which I am offering in a promotion of 3 for 1000 pesos, or a unit price of 500…”GMesTrX

They usually speak with remarkable formality and eloquence despite their apparent lack of education, professional experience, or at least monetary resources. Sometimes they rap about the deceptions of the politicians or the need to take care of Mother Earth or how Jesus made them whole. Sometimes they sing old love ballads with a little faux-vintage speaker and a USB drive to play gritty karaoke tracks. Sometimes they play rollicking vallenato songs on the guitar while doing an impressive balancing act in the jostle of the articulated busses.

These are the people who ride the integrated transit system in Bogotá, not to get from one place to another, but to make a living. When the Transmilenio was first inaugurated in 2000, law enforcement kept these people mostly “under control,” but there are so many of them that the officers must have given up. Now the city government combats their activity by running campaigns that depict responsible, model citizen refusing to support the business of such intrusive, dangerous people on the bus.

But this year as part of my Lenten practice, I decided to make these peddlers of wares and stories important to me. I tried to stop being indifferent to them, and to listen to them, look at them, respond to them.

Between the Catholics eating fish and the Evangelicals stuck on the idea that if there are no special seasons then Jesus is more present all the time, I fumbled to find a Lenten practice that made sense here in Colombia. Following the insights of a professor of mine from seminary, I did not want to treat Lent as a self-improvement kick-starter that helps me do things I should’ve been doing all along, That’s just short of the Evangelicals with their dreary insistence that ordinary time is sacred time. I wanted to doing something unsustainable, something that I shouldn’t keep doing all the time, because this reminds me that every good thing is a gift from God.

So I decided to give away money. I admit that I got the idea from Pope Francis’ call to “fast from indifference,” publicized in popular media—and that does sound like a self-improvement project.

But in my experience, indifference is an important survival mechanism in Bogotá. Without it, you would always be running late as you try to put coins in all the beggars’ cups on the street and receive all the fliers that people are paid by quantity to hand out. You would give away more money than you can afford to respond to the pleas of all of the singers, rappers, merchants, preachers, comedians, accident victims, unemployed fathers and mothers, and internally displaced persons that make their rounds on the busses. You could even put yourself—or at least your possessions—in danger by pulling out your wallet in these circumstances.

So I tried to do these unsustainable things. I had a rule to always give money to these people on the bus, whether as charity or to buy their products, and I had to always share food with people wherever I went. But more than following a rule, which is easy, I know that to “fast from indifference” means cultivating a deeper awareness: to be able to perceive the other who constantly comes towards me in this sea of people, with needs, with demands, with stories. You have to learn to listen to what you would normally tune out, to look more carefully even when you don’t want to see, to such a point that you cannot justify not responding.

I strained my ears to hear their stories and tried to be ready with coins when they passed my place on the bus. I bought hard candies, mints, an orange elephant keychain, and crossword puzzle booklets from them. I remember some of their faces: the older furrow-browed couple from the coast, the blue-eyed man with crutches, the pregnant woman with hollow cheeks. Even then, there were times I failed to respond; they passed too fast, I said to myself, or I needed my spare change to buy something-or-other for dinner. There were other times when I didn’t really take them in: who are these people, and how are they beautiful?

My little gestures of generosity were, in truth, paltry. I could and should do most of them on a regular basis, and if there was anything unsustainable about them it was just because I happened to be unusually short on funds this Lent.

But I did learn something about receiving the good I do as grace. I learned how hard it is to respond to the needy one who barges into my efficiently downcast path, hoping that I will be thrown off kilter enough to notice their face and their voice. I let myself be thrown off more often than usual. Maybe I always should, so maybe I did just start another self-improvement project. But more important than “working on it” is recognizing that I cannot truly perceive those around me without abundant measures of grace. This was clear to me in my faltering attempts at “unsustainable generosity.” And Easter came up singing with the hope that there is One who is more generous, more attentive, and more enlivened by the beauty of each bus vendor than I could ever be. The same Spirit that was in Jesus enlivens me now to lift my head and hear them coming even as I reflect with self-satisfaction on the good I’ve done.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. If I could have just a moment of your attention…”

Listening for the Music to Come Down

I have been hearing a low humming in my left ear for months now. It comes and goes. I can’t figure out why it’s there, physiologically speaking. But I imagine sometimes that it is a deep frequency emitted by the earth or the heavens. I hear it now not because I am especially attuned, but because I am on the perilous brink of losing my ability to listen really deeply to anything.

While I was home in Michigan recently, I saw the Swedish movie As it is in Heaven. It is the story of a world-famous conductor who goes back to his little hometown after suffering a heart attack. His purpose, he says, is just “to listen.” When the local church choir convinces him to be their director, he explains to them that all music already exists; we simply must listen for it so we can “draw it down.” Music is something transcendent. It comes down to us from heaven, from the presence of the sacred.

We spoke of the power of music over the birthday dinner of my brother, Andrew. Music, he said, is what has given him faith in “something more.” His best shows happen when 20678_601132099360_8098706_nhe and his band mates get out of the way and let another presence play through them. We compared a performing musician with a pastor when she preaches. Both are called to mediate for others an encounter with something much greater than themselves. It’s about letting what you’ve heard sing through you.

I worry about losing my hearing. Mysterious low humming sounds inside my ear do not help this anxiety much. However, I am not so much worried about losing it from overuse, but from lack of use. Not only do I not play much music anymore, but I notice that I have a harder time differentiating sounds—the threads of a harmony, or the heartfelt story that someone is trying to tell me on a crowded bus. I feel as if my hearing were waning because I have not been tending to the discipline of listening.

Soon, I will be a pastor. At least, that is what a board of ordained ministry has told me. But to be a truly good pastor, I have to learn how to listen better—to people, to God, to God-in-people, to the music of fully-aliveness that is waiting for me to draw it down. In a beautiful essay on the “Unbusy Pastor,” Eugene Peterson has written: “I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.”

I have told myself that I have not written many blog entries—or songs—in recent months because I’ve been busy. But that is not the real reason. In truth, I am just distracted. No tasks are too many or too weighty to excuse me from paying attention to the music that comes down through all my senses.

On the occasion of my approbation as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church, my friend Amy’s wonderful mother, Cathy, gave me a book of Mary Oliver poems. One of them[1] says:

There are thing you can’t reach. But

you can reach out to them, all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away, the idea of God.

Our most important task is to reach for the mystery of the infinite that is present in the ordinary things, even as it remains always beyond us. Oliver uses herself as a model of sorts when she declares, “I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.” Then she writes a little further on:

And now I will tell you the truth.

Everything in the world comes.

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

This mystery we are reaching for wants to come to us—like a God who loves us and wants to be known by us even as she knows us. So really, all we have to do is pay attention—to be ready for it when it comes. I can think of no better gift than these words for someone who is trying to become a pastor.

For me, on account of the music that keeps its low hum going in my soul, even when I am ignoring it, the best way to speak of paying attention is to speak of listening. So I hope I will never be done with listening. All the livelong day.

Photo Credit: Samantha Chalfin

[1] Mary Oliver, “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?” in Why I Wake Early (2004).